To English or not

In fifty years, there is likely to be only one major medium of instruction in most schools around the world – English. Indigenous languages will persist as they are the identifying language of peoples, but full blown might of globalisation of information and commerce will render any denial of English as foolhardy.

But that is a probable future. What do you do with the systemic problems with our national education in the meantime? The present situation pertaining to the use of English for the teaching of technology subjects (science and maths) has failed its key customers – students.

The majority of Malaysian students were not ready for the use of English as the medium in 2003 when the policy started. Five years later we are probably more ready – which still does not mean we are ready enough.

There lies the rub.

Revert back to Malay or to trudge along in English until we get it right? The prevailing think, which is also a political expediency since Pakatan Rakyat are pledging to bring back Malay for technology subjects, is to bring back Malay.

So we are probably going to back to Malay in 2010 – irrespective of who is running the country.

Should we?


The major shortcomings of English are the vast majority of our technology teachers are not proficient in teaching the subject in English and most of our children do not use English – even at a basic level.

So they are spending their first years in school – while learning how to read and write – how to count and observe in a language they are beginning to understand.

The solution is obvious then. I won’t relate to the status post-merdeka where most of our students were adept at English – at least at a functional level. We have to move forward from the erroneous policies of the 70s (hint…hint… When Mahathir started moving into the mansion with the other ultras) to what is on our plate today – without abrogating those responsible for the policies.

The decision then was to focus and build on Malay, and reduce the import of English in order to appreciate the value of the former – worked out too well.

In my secondary school days there were teachers already made redundant by the change from English to Malay. The Economics teacher could not teach in Malay since he was unable to speak it well, therefore was converted to becoming an English teacher. Worse, he was asked to teach too basic English to kids in a English-speaking school – resulting in further redundancy.

However the system prevailed because there was a natural flow of more Malay-speaking teachers, even if they were from the English system. The larger influx of Malay teachers in the national teaching grid enabled the policy of Malay only, to have only one major victim – English.

In akin to a back to the future experience Mahathir looked at the internet and globalisation, and saw the declining value of Malaysian education. It was slowly becoming an exam oriented system, where effort was directed to only four years of your schooling life – the primary school leaving exam (UPSR), the secondary school middle certificate (PMR), the secondary school certificate (SPM) and the leaving cert (STPM).

Mahathir – and as would any other leaders – wanted the Malaysian child to be bi-lingual at least, comfortable with the internet, adept at accepting foreign ideas and present his/her thought with clarity.

English was key – as the emerging ideas, discourses and textbooks were in it.

So a slapdash change was incorporated.

In this nation, preparedness can be faked. Data was manipulated to suggest it can be immediately implemented in schools with crash courses for teachers.

If the system could not help the majority of teachers in Malaysia speak basic English, which maniac thought the same system would be able to make the very same people able to teach arithmetic and about the sensory system – through a crash course?

Again, water under the bridge.

Quickies, not

The thing is, we do have a group of teachers who have been teaching in English for the last five years. The new graduate teachers have had modified programmes to enable them to do the very thing.

They are somewhat able to do the job. Changing course now, would mean the marginal advances are lost.

Irrespective of what language we want to use, the support structure will be in English. The internet being the primordial point. Teachers would want to use the vast resource available in cyberspace – and almost all of it will be in English. Getting the kids comfortable with English has to be a primary objective.

In the Philippines public schools where Tagalog is the official language, a mix of English and the national language is used to teach technology subjects. The terminologies are in untranslated English. So compared to Malaysia’s formulasi, eksperimen and dioksida they just refer to them as formulation, experiment and dioxide.

There is some worthiness in looking at this option.

The reason why children with no English background drop-out from the learning, is because all of it is in English. Having a Malay base while keeping a substantial bit in English, does reduce the discomfort level.

Let us be honest, a major part of technology terminology used in Malay are direct derivatives from English.

Therefore sticking to English terminologies, mixing up the language might not be the worst thing possible, though purists might mind.

Paolo Freire would support learning that is more centred on how the learning group connect to learning, rather than a rigid up-down approach to knowing.

The future is in using English – for very self-preservation reasons – but losing your audience early will not endear the learning.

Chances are the Ministry of Education will just reduce the passing grade and fake results to give us the placebo feel about being purists about the use of English as the medium for technology subjects.

That might be the short-term measure for rural schools, and less affluent schools in the cities.

Let us be practical about education.

The thriving ones

There is the English speaking population, and they are weighing between sending their kids to private or international schools. Nothing is gained from this for the federal government.

Time has come for them to acknowledge that not all schools are equals. They are not. MOE has just been saying it, without actually believing it themselves.

These schools have children who are quite at ease with English, as they grow up with Nickelodeon and Disney. They can stay on learning in English.

This will create a tiered system, but is not Malaysian education already tiered?

Are we not reducing their potential to leap on by making them learn in Malay, when they can immediately immerse in the body of knowledge available to the English speaking world?


The tiered system will create separations, but at least they are honest ones.

Now, we have a fractured system that is not prepare to call a spade a spade. The cumulative effect is that we lose out for both – non-English speaking kids learning in pure English which incapacitates them, and English speaking kids learning in limited form so that the rest can catch up.

Something has to give.

The only way we can help everyone reach minimum standards is by allowing each to have the help necessary to move forward.

5 thoughts on “To English or not

  1. I do agree with what you’re writing. English should be introduced for all subjects early – preschool so that it wouldnt be a foreign language to the kids. Kindergarten should be under kementerian pendidikan instead of under kebajikan masyarakat so that the learning/educating process for both teachers and students are parallel. A proper syllabus should be done and be introduced to all kemas tadikas cause that’s where rural areas kids go for their early education. How do we expect the children to just know english if we don’t start them from young. I’m a preschool teacher and i’ve seen how children who does not speak english at home become better english speaker/reader with the right guidance from the teachers at school. It is possible. 🙂

  2. Learning science and maths in English is beneficial for tertiary education as the one and only person I know who did her stpm in English can testify.

    Her only problem was, most of the teachers that thought her could not even construct proper sentences in English and mispronounced the terminologies in ways that made the whole class snigger.

    Seriously, screw unity and bring back English schools like those in the sixties as an extra option… It’s not like we’re that united anyways

  3. English is good as a common language of exchange. However, non-english languages provide their speakers with means of thinking about problems in novel ways. The bilingual is the potential for the future.

  4. It’s interesting to hear the argument regarding education and the use of the English language from a Malaysian point of view.

    I’m not sure, though, how valid the main plank of your argument is – that in fifty years the the main medium of instruction will be English in the majority of the world’s schools.

    This is an old argument, that was widespread in countries like Italy in the early 1950s with the growth of television and trade with the US. Despite the exposure to and inclusion of words from the English language, there are no significant signs that the Italian language is dying out.

    A similar case can be made throughout Europe.

    In Ireland, where a native language (gaelic) was substituted succesfully by English, it was done so over a long period from the 1600s onwards, using a combination of military, administrative, and financial measures – a combination that is unlikely to be repeated on a wide scale.

    It also ignores other ‘global’ languages like mandarin chinese or spanish.

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